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Choice and the Relationship between Identities and Behaviour for Mothers with Pre-School Children: Some Implications for Policy from a UK Study

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  23 July 2004

Faculty of Social Sciences, Open University, Walton Hall, Milton Keynes MK7 6AA email:
Department of Social Policy and Social Work, University of Oxford, Barnett House, Wellington Square, Oxford OX1 2ER email:


This article reports on the findings and policy implications of a UK study that used both qualitative and quantitative methods to investigate mothers' decision-making with respect to the interlinked issues of the care of their pre-school children and their own employment. Mothers were found to have both internal and external constraints on their decisions. In the three areas of finances, childcare and working time, both personal identities and external circumstances limited mothers' choices. However, neither external circumstances nor identities were fixed. Behaviour and identities were therefore adjusted to each other, giving rise to feedback effects at both the individual and the social level.

While the constraints of identity limit the direct effectiveness of some policies, the long-term effectiveness of others may be enhanced by positive feedback arising from attitudes changing along with behaviour. A ‘policy multiplier’ is defined as the ratio of such indirect to direct effects. This is likely to be greater for enabling policies that lift existing constraints and enable choices that were previously not available, than for coercive policies that impose new constraints on behaviour. The article examines the implications of such feedback effects for developing policy that expands the choices available to mothers in the short term, reduces the costs of motherhood, and meets the government's long-term objectives of reducing child poverty and increasing employment.

© 2004 Cambridge University Press

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